Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition gains new skills from Disney and others

Amazon is today rolling out a set of new features to its Echo Dot Kids Edition devices — the now $70 version of the Echo Dot smart speaker that ships with a protective case and a year’s subscription to Amazon FreeTime, normally a $2.99 per month subscription for Prime members. Now joining the Kids Edition’s parental controls and other exclusive content are new skills from Disney, Hotel Transylvania and Pac-Man, as well as a calming “Sleep Sounds” skill for bedtime.

There are now four new skills that play sounds of thunderstorms, rain, the ocean or a babbling brook, as well as an all-encompassing “Sleep Sounds” skill that offers 42 different soothing options from which to choose. New parents may be glad to know that this includes baby-soothing sounds like cars, trains and the vacuum (don’t knock it until you try it, folks — it works).

Amazon clarified to us that while there is a version of sleep sounds in the Skill Store today, this version launching on the Kids Edition is a different, child-directed version.

Also new to the Kids Edition is “Disney Plot Twist,” which is like a Disney version of Mad Libs, where players change out words and phrases in short adventure stories. The skill features popular Disney characters like Anna, Olaf and Kristoff as the narrators and is exclusive to Kids Edition devices.

The new movie “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is featured in another new skill, Drac’s Pack, which includes monster stories, songs and jokes.

Meanwhile, Pac-Man Stories is a skill that includes interactive stories for the whole family that work similar to choose-your-own-adventures — that is, the decisions you make will affect the ending.

Both of these are broadly available on Alexa, meaning they don’t require a Kids Edition device to access.

Stories, however, does appear to be one of the areas Amazon is investing in to make its Alexa-powered speakers more appealing to families with young children. The company recently decided to stop working on its chat stories app Amazon Rapids, saying it will instead continue to adapt those Amazon Rapids stories for the Alexa platform.

Amazon also tries to market the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families by making some kid-friendly content, like Disney Plot Twist, available exclusively to device owners.

For example, it already offers with this device exclusive kid skills like Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures and Climb the Beanstalk.

But the Kids Edition can also be confusing to use, because the exclusive skills come whitelisted and ready to go, while other kid-safe skills have to be manually whitelisted through a parent’s dashboard. And there isn’t enough instruction either from Alexa or in the Alexa app on this process, at present, we found when testing the device earlier.

Unless there’s a specific exclusive skill that parents really want their kids to have, the savings are also minimal when buying the Kids Edition Dot/FreeTime bundle, versus buying a regular Dot and adding FreeTime separately.

A university is outfitting living spaces with thousands of Echo Dots

Soon, Saint Louis University students won’t be able to avoid Amazon’s near ubiquitous smart speakers. The university announced this week a plan to outfit living spaces with 2,300 Echo Dots. The devices are set to be deployed by the time classes start, later this month.

SLU is quick to note that it’s “the first college or university in the country to bring Amazon Alexa-enabled devices, managed by Alexa for Business, into every student residence hall room and student apartment on campus.” It’s certainly not the first to adopt Amazon’s smart speakers, but it’s among the largest scale for this sort of deployment.

While the product has become a mainstay in plenty of American homes, it does seem like an odd choice dorms and student campus. SLU has worked with Alexa for Business to create 100 custom questions, including, “What time does the library close tonight?” and “Where is the registrar’s office?” 

Then, of course, there are the privacy concerns of having little cloud connected recording devices populating the school’s living spaces. SLU is attempting to get out in front of that here. The company addressed those issues on a privacy page, writing,

Because of our use of the Amazon Alexa for Business (A4B) platform, your Echo Dot is managed by a central system dedicated to SLU. This system is not tied to individual accounts and does not maintain any personal information for any of our users, so all use currently is anonymous. Additionally, neither Alexa nor the Alexa for Business management system maintains recordings of any questions that are asked.

The school notes that students can also mute the microphone. Students can’t technically opt-out, but they can unplug the product and shove it in a drawer, turning it in at the end of the year. Just don’t use it as a hockey puck, because that’ll cost you.

Amazon patents a real-time accent translator

Amazon has applied for a patent for an audio system that detects the accent of a speaker and changes it to the accent of the listener, perhaps helping eliminate communication barriers in many situations and industries. The patent doesn’t mean the company has made it (or necessarily that it will be granted), but there’s also no technical reason why it can’t do so.

The application, spotted by Patent Yogi, describes “techniques for accent translation.” Although couched in the requisite patent-ese, the method is quite clear. After a little translation of my own, here’s what it says:

In a two-party conversation, received audio is analyzed to see if it matches with one of a variety of stored accents. If so, the input audio from each party is outputted based on the accent of the other party.

It’s kind of a no-brainer, especially considering all the work that’s being done right now in natural language processing. Accents can be difficult to understand, especially if you haven’t spoken with an individual before, and especially without the critical cues from facial and body movements that make in-person communication so much more effective.

The most obvious place for an accent translator to be deployed is in support, where millions of phone calls take place regularly between people in distant countries. It’s the support person’s goal to communicate clearly and avoid adding to the caller’s worries with language barriers. Accent management is a major part of these industries; support personnel are often required to pass language and accent tests in order to advance in the organization for which they work.

A computational accent remover would not just improve their lot, but make them far more effective. Now a person with an Arabic accent can communicate just as well with just about anyone who speaks the same language — no worries if the person on the other end has heavily Austrian, Russian or Korean-accented English; if it’s English, it should work.

There are of course lots of other situations where this could be helpful — while traveling, for instance, or conducting international business. I’m sure you can think of a few situations of your own from the last few months or years where an accent reducer or translator would have been handy.

As for the actual execution of this system, that’s a big unknown. But Amazon has a huge amount of money and engineering talent dedicated to natural language processing, and there’s nothing about this system that strikes me as unrealistic or unattainable with existing technology.

It would be a machine learning model, of course, or rather a set of them, each trained on several hours of speech by people with a specific accent. Good thing Alexa has a worldwide presence! Amazon has an avalanche of audio samples coming in from Echoes and other devices all over the place, so many accents are likely already accounted for in their library. From there it’s just a matter of soliciting voice recordings from any group that’s underrepresented in that data set.

Research along these lines has certainly been done already, but Amazon seems to have the jump on others on the creation of a specific system for using that knowledge in product form.

Notably the patent allows for a bit of cheating on the system’s part: it doesn’t have to scramble during the first few seconds to identify your accent, but can stack the deck a bit by checking the device’s location, phone number, previous accents encountered on that line or, of course, simply allowing the speaker to pick their accent manually. Of course there will still be a variety within, say, a selected accent of “Pakistani,” but with enough data the system should be able to detect and accommodate those as well.

As always with patents there’s no guarantee this will actually take product form; it could just be research or a “defensive” patent intended to prevent rivals from creating a system like this in the meantime. But in this case I feel confident that there’s a real possibility a product will ship in the next year or so.

That $20 Wyze Cam now works with Alexa

The Wyze Cam has long been a strong contender for the best deal in connected home security. I haven’t actually tried the thing out, but Greg was “surprisingly impressed” with his hands-on time with the 1080p camera. That’s probably enough in and of itself to justify the $20 price tag.

Now the dirt cheap camera’s getting some added features courtesy of a software update. Starting today, owners of the Wyze Cam v2 and the $30 Wyze Cam Pan will be able to use Alexa to summon live video feeds on the Echo Show, Spot and through the Fire TV Stick (using the voice-enabled remote). Sorry, no luck for those who picked up the first gen device. Hope that $20 camera is working out for you, otherwise. 

The feature is available this week as a free update to the Alexa app. Wyze joins Ring, Arlo, Nest, and Canary, along with Amazon’s own security cameras, of course. But if nothing else, its option is certainly the cheapest of the bunch. One of these and an Echo Spot will set you back $150 — not too shabby for an on-the-fly home security system.

Amazon’s Show Mode Dock makes the Echo Show mostly unnecessary

Google gave us a hardware blitzkrieg at CES. Among other things, the company announced a new smart display category, aimed at taking on the Echo Show through sheer, brute force. The new Show Mode Dock isn’t a direct response, but it’s a clever one.

Two years ago, Amazon introduced Alexa for the Fire tablet line. Last year, the feature went hands-free. In June, all of those additions finally paid off with the addition of Show Mode for the Fire HD 8 and 10, along with the dock, which effectively turns the tablets into an Echo Show. It’s a perfect bit of stream-crossing synergy for the company.

When I met with Amazon prior to release, I asked if the company was afraid of cannibalizing the Show. They seemed unconcerned. Not surprising, really. Hardware has always been secondary to its strategy. The more Alexa devices in the world, the better. That’s really the bottom line here.

For consumers, the form factor makes sense. You can pick up the 8- and 10-inch bundle for  $110 and $190, respectively, putting it considerably below the Show’s $230 MSRP (though Amazon sale prices do tend to fluctuate a fair bit). That cost is getting you not only a smart display, but a Fire tablet that can be unhooked and used in all of the standard tablet ways.

In fact, the more I talk about it, the less compelling the Show becomes. It was never a particularly attractive piece of hardware for one that’s meant to be displayed in your home at all times. In fact, it’s got a bit of an unintentional retro RadioShack vibe. It’s also unnecessarily big and bulky — that’s part of what made the much smaller Spot that much more appealing.

Given the new product category and some of the deep discounts it’s been getting in recent months, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a new Show on the way in the not so distant future. In the meantime, however, the device does have a few things going for it versus the tablet/dock combo.

Chief among them are better mics and speakers. Of course, you can always connect the tablet to a Bluetooth speaker (through the app, not over voice yet) to address the latter issue. But for now, if you’re looking for a screen-enabled device that can also double as a small entertainment hub, the Show is probably still a better bet.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that neither the Fire Tablet nor the dock are what anyone would classify as premium devices. Amazon’s efforts to compete on the high end of the tablet market evaporated years ago. The new Fires have decent screens, but otherwise mostly fit the bill of content delivery devices. It’s a strategy that has worked quite well for Amazon, as much of the rest of the tablet category has dried up.

There isn’t a lot to the dock itself. It’s a small bit of plastic with a kickstand that swivels out. There’s a plastic tablet case with two metal pads on the back that snap onto the dock with magnets. A small micro-USB module plugs into the tablet’s port, connecting the two, for data transfer and power, so it can charge while docked.

The key to the whole thing is the addition of Show Mode to the tablet, bringing the same UI you get on the smart display. You can enable it manually on the device by swiping down on the home menu (strangely, this doesn’t seem to be enabled through voice yet). The Mode does away with all of the details of the standard Fire OS, instead defaulting to a large, card-based system.

The Mode is also enabled when the tablet is docked. When you remove it, it reverts back to the standard tablet. Simple.

It all works as advertised. Though again, the speakers aren’t great, and it’s not as good at picking up sounds across the room. Although $40 and $55 for the 8- and 10-inch dock, respectively, is a bit steep, taken together, it’s ultimately a better deal than the Show — and either way, you’re getting a screen larger than the smart display’s 7-inch.

The Show Mode Dock/Fire Tablet combo is really just the all-around better deal. It also starts shipping next week — no word yet on when those Google displays are finally arriving. 

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

Motiv’s fitness ring can help you find a lost iPhone

I was surprisingly impressed when I tested out Motiv’s fitness ring. Honestly, I’m not a ring wearer myself, but it’s nice to see a hardware startup think outside the fitness band — and produce a surprisingly capable product in the process. The company’s also done a pretty decent job continuing to add features to the little wearable.

Back in April, the ring got Alexa functionality and Android support. This week, the company announced some additional features for Amazon’s smart assistant, along with the ability to use the device to locate a lost phone. That last bit is one of the more compelling additions to the ring since launch. If the lost iPhone is within Bluetooth range, a few twists of the ring will set the handset ringing and vibrating until you find the thing.

As for Alexa functionality, users can now ask the assistant for more detailed fitness information, including active minutes, calories, sleep and steps. Motiv has also added new social functionality to the ring, in the form of Circles, which lets users share activity feed with friends who also use the ring.

None are particularly earth-shattering in and of themselves, but it’s nice to see the startup continuing to introduce innovative new features for the hardware.

Alexa gets smarter about calendar appointments

As digital assistants improve, we’re learning new things to expect from them, but the tasks that a real-life assistant may have handled before can still be a bit of a challenge to home assistants.

Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is gaining functionality to help it get smarter about working with your calendar. The new abilities will let users move appointments around and schedule meetings based on other people’s availability.

If you’ve been shared on someone’s calendar availability, Alexa will be able to suggest times that work for both of you. Just say, “Alexa schedule a meeting with [name]” and Amazon’s assistant will search through your schedule for a good time, suggesting up to two time slots that could work.

On a more basic feature level, Alexa won’t make you cancel appointments and reschedule them if a meeting time changes. You’ll be able to just ask Alexa to move an existing meeting, something that should have probably been supported from the beginning, but hey, better late than never.

Both of these features are available to U.S. users today.

Suki raises $20M to create a voice assistant for doctors

When trying to figure out what to do after an extensive career at Google, Motorola, and Flipkart, Punit Soni decided to spend a lot of time sitting in doctors’ offices to figure out what to do next.

It was there that Soni said he figured out one of the most annoying pain points for doctors in any office: writing down notes and documentation. That’s why he decided to start Suki — previously Robin AI — to create a way for doctors to simply start talking aloud to take notes when working with patients, rather than having to put everything into a medical record system, or even writing those notes down by hand. That seemed like the lowest hanging fruit, offering an opportunity to make it easier for doctors that see dozens of patients to make their lives significantly easier, he said.

“We decided we had found a powerful constituency who were burning out because of just documentation,” Soni said. “They have underlying EMR systems that are much older in design. The solution aligns with the commoditization of voice and machine learning. If you put it all together, if we can build a system for doctors and allow doctors to use it in a relatively easy way, they’ll use it to document all the interactions they do with patients. If you have access to all data right from a horse’s mouth, you can use that to solve all the other problems on the health stack.”

The company said it has raised a $15 million funding round led by Venrock, with First Round, Social+Capital, Nat Turner of Flatiron Health, Marc Benioff, and other individual Googlers and angels. Venrock also previously led a $5 million seed financing round, bringing the company’s total funding to around $20 million. It’s also changing its name from Robin AI to Suki, though the reason is actually a pretty simple one: “Suki” is a better wake word for a voice assistant than “Robin” because odds are there’s someone named Robin in the office.

The challenge for a company like Suki is not actually the voice recognition part. Indeed, that’s why Soni said they are actually starting a company like this today: voice recognition is commoditized. Trying to start a company like Suki four years ago would have meant having to build that kind of technology from scratch, but thanks to incredible advances in machine learning over just the past few years, startups can quickly move on to the core business problems they hope to solve rather than focusing on early technical challenges.

Instead, Suki’s problem is one of understanding language. It has to ingest everything that a doctor is saying, parse it, and figure out what goes where in a patient’s documentation. That problem is even more complex because each doctor has a different way of documenting their work with a patient, meaning it has to take extra care in building a system that can scale to any number of doctors. As with any company, the more data it collects over time, the better those results get — and the more defensible the business becomes, because it can be the best product.

“Whether you bring up the iOS app or want to bring it in a website, doctors have it in the exam room,” Soni said. “You can say, ‘Suki, make sure you document this, prescribe this drug, and make sure this person comes back to me for a follow-up visit.’ It takes all that, it captures it into a clinically comprehensive note and then pushes it to the underlying electronic medical record. [Those EMRs] are the system of record, it is not our job to day-one replace these guys. Our job is to make sure doctors and the burnout they are having is relieved.”

Given that voice recognition is commoditized, there will likely be others looking to build a scribe for doctors as well. There are startups like Saykara looking to do something similar, and in these situations it often seems like the companies that are able to capture the most data first are able to become the market leaders. And there’s also a chance that a larger company — like Amazon, which has made its interest in healthcare already known — may step in with its comprehensive understanding of language and find its way into the doctors’ office. Over time, Soni hopes that as it gets more and more data, Suki can become more intelligent and more than just a simple transcription service.

“You can see this arc where you’re going from an Alexa, to a smarter form of a digital assistant, to a device that’s a little bit like a chief resident of a doctor,” Soni said. “You’ll be able to say things like, ‘Suki, pay attention,’ and all it needs to do is listen to your conversation with the patient. I’m, not building a medical transcription company. I’m basically trying to build a digital assistant for doctors.”

Amazon’s fart app is the best reason to buy an Echo Button

As of this writing, there’s a single, solitary review for Button Tooter. It’s three stars and three sentences, and it’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. “They clearly ran out of ideas!” the reviewer writes. “It’s kind of fun! How about a game where you can make music. [sic]” Is Amazon’s creation of a fart app a true indication of creativity bankruptcy?

Or is it the sign of a company that’s finally discovered the killer app for its new hardware platform. It’s true that, in the past, fart apps have become a bit of a shorthand for useless mobile software. And for a brief, but glorious moment several years back, fart apps topped the various mobile charts, only to pass like, well, to quote the Oscar-nominated film, “a fart in the wind.”

But Buttons have always been a curiosity among the Echo family, some employee’s side project that somehow made it into production. Amazon’s formed a couple of partnerships with game makers, but the company has clearly spent much more time focusing on the rest of its smart home devices.

I never had any desire to have an Echo Button in my life — and the Button Tooter arrived. Now all I can think about is how much I want a remote button that can make my Echo Spot fart. And $20 seems like a small price to pay for the five or so minutes of pure childlike joy it will bring to my life. When’s the last time you could say that about a gadget.

Because we may have gotten old in the blink of an eye, and technology may have made us callous and uncaring husks of our former selves. The world may be full of hate, and this precise moment in time may feel as though we’re closer to the brink of global destruction by our hands.

But there’s one truth I know, that has always and will always hold in the face of an ever-changing world: farts are funny. So go forth and press, friends.